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A Band of Robbers

Erin McKenna Blood and Money in the US Presidential Elections

This year is obviously a US presidential election year, although in practice the presidential electoral cycle never really ends, the long day never wanes. Curiously, the 2000 presidential election finds the republic in a situation analogous to that of 1776. In the eighteenth century the American revolutionaries challenged the abuses of the monarchical world, which Gordon Wood characterises in The Radicalism of the American Revolution as ‘beset by hierarchy, patronage, dependence, patriarchy, inequality and devotion to kinship America’. Tom Paine’s complaint about monarchy reflected these abuses. The corruption of monarchy, wrote Paine in The Rights of Man, stemmed from ‘arbitrary power in an individual person: in the exercise of which himself, and not the res-publica, is the object’. In a republic, argued Wood, corruption was to be overcome by instituting the concept of virtue; a ‘devotion to the commonweal’. The only trick to virtue was (and still is) that it could ‘only be founded in a republic of equal, active and independent citizens’. The challenge which the revolutionaries had to grapple with was how to create a ‘democratic adhesive’ that would sustain the new republic in its separation from the old world.

The present customers of the American political system, however, do not appear to have the strength of their forefathers. The US political system has evolved into a relentless and interminable machine for raising money and lowering expectations, and ultimately in the election of men to the Oval office who abide by the political maxim that leadership is about finding a parade and getting in front of it. In such a system, there is no respite, no hope for the republican ideal of freedom as ‘non-domination’. If this appears as a harsh assessment — which it deliberately is — one need only cast a not too critical gaze over the only two electable candidates left in the race: Vice-President Albert Arnold Gore Jnr, and the Governor of Texas, George Walker Bush, two men with a lot more in common than either would ever admit to. (Pat Buchanan, of the Reform Party, is not included in the ‘electable’ category.)

Gore and Bush, Democrat and Republican respectively, have two of the most outstanding political pedigrees in the country. Gore’s father and Bush’s grandfather were United States Senators. Bush’s father, beside serving one term as President, was also Vice-President and a one-time Director of the CIA, certainly the more impressive of the three positions. Bush’s younger brother Jeb, is also the Governor of Florida. Since 1976 every Republican presidential ticket has featured either a Bush or a Dole.

Gore also has interesting kin, being the cousin of the noted author and essayist Gore Vidal. Vidal’s grandfather, T.P. Gore, was a senator from Oklahoma. As Vidal tells it though, in his memoir Palimpsest, the current senator from Oklahoma told him that ‘when Albert was running for President in 1988, he came to Oklahoma, and to hear him tell it, old T.P. Gore was his grandfather’. And so ‘the web of kin goes on’, concluded Vidal of Gore’s re-climbing of the family tree, even if ‘the individual strands do not’. The power and influence of kin, the opportunities and recognition afforded by family connections in the 2000 presidential race can hardly go unmentioned in a republic supposedly dedicated and sustained in part by merit.

The ‘web of kin’ is not the only outstanding feature of the 2000 presidential election. So too is the trail of money. Gore and Bush have proved to be successful — to the point of vulgarity — at raising money. In the month after he announced that he might be a candidate, $7 million flooded into the Bush campaign. By September of last year $36 million had been raised, a record in American politics. By December Bush had raised $65 million and was in a position to refuse federal matching funds, which would have put a limit on the amount of money he could continue to raise. In the first half of 1999 the Republicans raised $29.4 million in ‘soft money’ or unlimited contributions that are given by companies and interest groups to ‘Political Action Committees’ and not, technically, to individual candidates. Individual donors are limited to one-thousand-dollar donations. The Democrats managed to raise $24.2 million in the same period. The figures for both parties represent an increase from four years ago of 45 per cent and 130 per cent respectively. What was once considered patronage is now called fundraising, and most public action, far from being for Paine’s res-publica is dependent upon ‘private energy and private funds’, which is how Wood characterised such actions in pre-revolutionary America.

The only candidate to suggest any real reform of campaign fundraising was Arizona Senator John McCain. During the primaries, McCain proved to be a problem for the Bush succession, with his image as a genuine war hero (which he is) and a ‘maverick’ senator (which he is not). McCain supported every item of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America and voted in the affirmative for every article of impeachment against Clinton. Garry Wills, perhaps America’s most astute political observer, has called McCain a ‘political troglodyte’. Nevertheless, a common response from voters was that McCain is the ‘last hero of American politics’ and ‘he tells the truth’.

There was little difference in policy terms between Bush and McCain until McCain became a heretic in the Republican Party by spurning and actively wanting to change the system that had put him and Bush where they were. McCain wanted to eliminate all ‘soft money’ contributions. During the Republican debates McCain asked Bush if he was in favour of eliminating ‘soft money’. The Bush response was that eliminating ‘soft money’ would hurt the Republican Party and he was not for anything that would hurt the Republican Party, which is good ol’ boy code for ‘are you insane John, I have millions and I want to be president’. There was a sense that McCain was not dancing with the people who had brought him to the party. Consequently, after McCain defeated Bush in the New Hampshire primaries there was a change in the strategy of the Bush campaign. McCain went from being ‘my friend John’ to ‘Chairman McCain’ overnight. (McCain is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.) This was Bush’s attempt at banishing McCain from the kingdom, back to Washington to continue on with ‘politics as usual.’

However, in 1987 and 1988 McCain voted against campaign finance reform. It took an epiphany, otherwise known as his inclusion in the ‘Keating Five’, to become an advocate of campaign finance reform. McCain and four other Senators (all Democrats) became involved with Charles Keating, a corrupt owner of a savings and loan enterprise. McCain had received $112,000 in campaign contributions from Keating, including $54,000 for his Senate campaign. The McCain family had also enjoyed the use of a vacation house owned by Keating. When Keating managed to lose the life savings of all of his investors and cost the US taxpayer $3 billion, he turned to McCain and the other four Senators for protection from federal banking regulators. Consequently McCain became the subject of an Ethics Committee investigation. The counsel to the Ethics Committee recommended that all charges against McCain should be dropped, and he only received a ‘mild rebuke’ for exercising ‘poor judgement’.

Despite beating Bush in New Hampshire, Arizona and Michigan, McCain could not sustain his challenge on a nation-wide, or a Republican-wide basis. The Republicans’ ‘big tent’ proved to be too big for McCain’s message to be sustained in order to gain the nomination. The ‘big tent’ also proved too small for McCain to gain the nomination, as party rules in many primary states including Delaware, Arizona (which McCain won), Connecticut, Maine, New York, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma and California are closed primaries where only registered republicans can vote. (California is slightly different, in that it is ostensibly open but when awarding delegates only the votes of registered Republicans are counted in the Republican contest.) Closed primaries made McCain’s vote-winning potential considerably smaller because he appealed to independent voters and Democrats. McCain has ‘suspended’ his campaign and decided, after some persuasion (coercion?) to endorse Bush.

The ever-present need for money, because of the ever-present campaign, creates networks of faithful party donors who have an insatiable need for influence. The money cycle — I mean the electoral cycle — re-infects the body politic with patronage and leads to a hierarchy of citizenship, where votes and influence can be bought and sold, a system where domination is not easily checked because, after all, it is ‘their’ money, a system in which the voter becomes the servant of the candidate, giving time and money in return for dubious favours; and, as should be obvious, the keeping of servants has always been considered ‘highly anti-republican.’

The campaign has now been whittled down to Gore and Bush, even though the party conventions are not held until late July for the Republicans, at Philadelphia’s First Union Centre, and August for the Democrats, in Los Angeles at the Staples Centre. The campaign is now completely devoid of issues, after campaign finance reform left the arena with McCain. The official campaign websites of Gore and Bush display long lists of campaign promises which amount to little more than a set of quibbles between the two. Should there be a $250 to $300 billion dollar tax cut (Gore) or a $1 trillion tax cut (Bush)? How much of the surplus should go on the debt, Medicare and Social Security? Both candidates are knocking themselves out to convince America’s newest political institution, ‘hard-working, middle-class families’, that their policies are ‘family friendly’. The campaign that invents a method for including the ‘family’ in military and foreign policy will surely win the election. And the only differences of any real substance to be found between Gore and Bush are in the areas of education and gun control. Gore supports the upgrade of public schools and Bush supports the introduction of school vouchers. Gore is in favour of putting child safety locks on guns, and Bush (and the very generous NRA) against such a measure.

The real difference between the two candidates may ultimately prove to be in name only — between a New Democrat and a Compassionate Conservative; to child-lock or not to child-lock? The ‘democratic adhesive’ sought after by the revolutionaries has emerged in the year 2000 as a chronic dependence on an increasingly false distinction between Democrats and Republicans. A dependence also in the sense of voters ‘conforming to the will’ and serving the presidential manufacturing machine. The 2000 presidential election is a disturbing reminder of the hierarchy, patronage and dependence that has overwhelmed the American republic. Perhaps the last word should be left to Tom Paine. ‘Virtue’, wrote Paine in Common Sense, ‘is not hereditary’.

Erin McKenna is a postgraduate student in politics at Monash University

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